Darwinism In The Monastery

Perhaps it’s because I’m slowly working my way through “The Origin of the Species,” but I can’t help but look at Arequipa’s Santa Catalina Monastery through Charles Darwin’s eyes. Darwin visited Peru in 1835 but never made it to Arequipa (he took one look at Lima, didn’t like what he saw and decided to head immediately for the Galapagos). I see the Monastery as an organism, one that has adapted over four hundred-plus years in its quest to survive. For the first 300 years of its life, the Monastery existed in a privileged vacuum, then it was forced to reform by the Pope and for the next 100 years it existed in a tightly religious vein until 1970 when another evolution caused it to open up its doors for tourism. As we toured the Monastery recently, I couldn’t help thinking that some commercial real estate developer would love to help it evolve into an upscale shopping mall.

The Monastery, located near Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas, is a cloistered convent that was built in 1580 and enlarged in the 17th century. We wandered throughout the 215,000-square-foot monastery, taking in its vividly–painted walls, its Mudejar-style architecture, its quiet courtyards with fruit trees and its austere cells for the nuns. The founder was a rich widow, Maria de Guzman, who only accepted nuns from wealthy Spanish families. Each family paid a dowry when their daughter entered the monastery, and the dowry that gained you the highest status was 2,400 silver coins, equivalent to US$50,000 today. Traditionally, the second daughter of these families entered a nunnery, a fact that my wife playfully pointed out to my (second-born) daughter on several occasions. Theoretically, the nuns were supposed to live in poverty and renounce the material world. In fact, each nun at Santa Catalina had between one and four servants or slaves, and the nuns often had parties and invited musicians to perform in the Monastery. In addition to the stories of outrageous wealth, there are tales of nuns becoming pregnant and one story of a baby skeleton being discovered encased in a wall.

This cushy existence lasted until 1871 when the Monastery was forced to adapt to a stricter lifestyle; Sister Josefa Cadena, a Dominican nun, was sent by Pope Pius IX to reform the monastery. She sent the rich dowries back to Europe, and freed all the servants and slaves, giving them the choice of remaining as nuns or leaving. The Monastery made the adjustment to this new environment for the next 100 years, until it was forced to adapt once again.

In 1970 the Monastery finally opened to the public when the mayor of Arequipa forced the Monastery to comply with laws requiring it to install electricity and running water. The nuns, who were at this point too poor to do this, opened their doors to tourism to pay for the modernization. It was evident to us from the very Spartan accommodations – unadorned walls, a simple mattress, one escritorio (writing desk), an oil lamp, a chamber pot, a storage trunk and a cross on the wall – that these nuns were nothing like their wealthy forbears of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Monastery once housed approximately 450 people (about a third of them nuns and the rest servants) in a cloistered community. Today, there are approximately 20 nuns living in the northern corner of the complex; the rest of the monastery is open to the public.

In addition to societal and religious pressures to evolve, Mother Nature did her part with major earthquakes in 1600, 1687, 1868, 1958, 1960 and in 2001, which caused the architecture to be rebuilt and retrofitted with an eye towards withstanding the frequent earthquakes in the Arequipa region. As is evident from our tour, the Santa Catalina Monastery is in great shape; it's a survivor.


  1. The Galapagos Islands are the most incredible living museum of evolutionary changes, with a huge variety of exotic species (birds, land and sea animals, plants) and landscapes not seen anywhere else.

  2. Yes, it's an incredible place. We will be there this weekend.